Out of the mouths of babes at pope’s audience

By Lauren Colegrove

VATICAN CITY — Standing in the crowd in St. Peter’s Square for Pope Francis’ first general audience, I did a few interviews, but a conversation I overheard was too good to ignore.

A little girl, who looked about 10 years old, was with a little boy watching the pope; I’m guessing the boy, who looked about 4, was her brother. The little guy commented on how many babies Pope Francis was kissing.

His big sister told him, “When we have babies we’ll come back and he will kiss them.”

Pope Francis with one of the babies he kissed this morning. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis with one of the babies he kissed this morning. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Father Scott Kallal, a member of the Apostles of the Interior Life originally from the Diocese of Springfield, Ill., was translating the pope’s remarks from Italian into English for the parents of the two children.

Interviewed later, he said of Pope Francis, “Everyone loves that he wants to be close to us.”

The pope is “trying to make it clear that God really does love every single one of us as we are,” he said. “Whatever you’re going through … He (God) is just waiting for you to turn around.”

In my section of the square, as Pope Francis rode by in the popemobile, a group was singing, “Viva, viva Papa Francis” to the tune of “We Will Rock You.”

Angela and Mark Smith, Anglicans on vacation from Devon, England, said they wanted to see the new pope for themselves. “He has charisma, you can see how the people react to him.”

“He’s just got a lovely presence,” Angela said. “He definitely has cross-the-Christian-Church appeal,” especially with his message of caring for the poor.

U.S. seminarians dominate soccer league

By Lauren Colegrove

ROME — The North American Martyrs won their third game of the season in the Clericus Cup soccer league March 16 and will be advancing to the spring playoffs. The team from the Pontifical North American College, the U.S. seminary in Rome, is defending its title as winner of last year’s tournament, vying once again for the coveted trophy featuring a soccer ball wearing a clerical hat.

The Clericus Cup, which is now in its seventh season, brings together seminarians and priests in Rome on the fields of the Pontifical Oratory of St. Peter to take part in feats of sportsmanship and compete for the title of champions while reflecting on what it means to be in the service of Christ.

Gregory Gerhart, a seminarian from the Diocese of Austin, Texas, said that one of the benefits of being in the league is “competing with other men who are preparing or already have given their lives to Christ and to the church.”

“Our goal as a team is to grow in the love of Christ,” Gerhart said in an email interview. “The competition allows us to enjoy fraternity with one another and enjoy the gift of God’s creation.”

With 16 teams consisting of 355 players from 56 countries, the fraternity is worldwide. The majority of the players on the North American Martyrs team are from the United States, but there are a few teammates from Australia and one from England.

The North American Martyrs won their first game against the Spanish College 6-0, “due in large part to our younger team,” Gerhart said. The American team also won against St. Paul’s College in penalty shots after tying in regulation. Even though they played in a downpour of rain, Gerhart said that didn’t stop the team members from having fun.

The NAC superhero cheering section at a 2012 game. (CNS/Paul Haring)

The NAC superhero cheering section at a 2012 game. (CNS/Paul Haring)

The Martyrs are well known for their loud and enthusiastic fan base and “are supported by our brother seminarians who come to the games dressed in superhero costumes,” Gerhart said. “They chant, yell and sing the entire game.”

On March 16 the Martyrs played against the Pontifical Urban College– a rivalry match because of the proximity of the two seminaries on the Janiculum Hill near the Vatican– and won 2-1. After a break for Easter, the quarter finals will be played April 13 and the finals will be held May 18.

Even amid the friendly competition, the camaraderie brings the players and fans closer to God, which is the ultimate goal of the tournament. “It is a beautiful expression of the priestly fraternity we hope to share after our ordination,” Gerhart said.

Pope on Palm Sunday: Christ’s passion leads to joy

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Pope Francis carries woven palm fronds as he walks in a procession at the beginning of Palm Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican March 24. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Pope Francis celebrated his first Palm Sunday Mass as pope March 24, telling an overflow crowd in St. Peter’s Square that Christ’s death on the cross is a source of eternal consolation and joy.

“A Christian can never be sad. Never give way to discouragement,” the pope said in his homily, assuring listeners that with Jesus, “we are never alone, even at difficult moments, even at difficult moments when our life’s journey comes up against problems and obstacles that seem insurmountable, and there are so many of them.”

As he has done with striking frequency since his election March 13, Pope Francis warned against the action of the devil, who he said comes to discourage believers in times of trouble, “often disguised as an angel who insidiously tells us his word. Do not listen to him.”

Recalling Jesus’ triumphant arrival in Jerusalem, when crowds acclaimed him as a king only days before his crucifixion, the pope stressed the otherworldly nature of Christ’s reign.

“Jesus does not enter the Holy City to receive the honors reserved to earthly kings, to the powerful, to rulers; he enters to be scourged, insulted and abused,” Pope Francis said. “His royal throne is the wood of the cross.”

“Jesus takes upon himself the evil, the filth, the sin of the world, including our own sin,” the pope said, “and he cleanses it, he cleanses it with his blood, with the mercy and the love of God.”

“Christ’s cross embraced with love does not lead to sadness, but to joy,” he said.

Pope Francis characteristically strayed from his prepared text in a personal aside when deploring the sin of greed, adding that money is something “no one can bring with him. My grandmother would say to us children, no shroud has pockets.”

Noting that “for 28 years Palm Sunday has been World Youth Day,” the pope told young people in the congregation that “you bring us the joy of faith and you tell us that we must live the faith with a young heart, always, even at the age of 70 or 80.”

Pope Francis confirmed that he would attend the July 2013 World Youth Day celebrations in Rio de Janeiro, saying, “I will see you in that great city in Brazil.” Though the announcement was widely expected, it drew applause from the crowd in the Square and the avenue beyond.

Before the Mass, young people carrying woven palm fronds led a procession that included bishops, cardinals and Pope Francis in the popemobile to the ancient Egyptian obelisk in the center of the Square, where the pope blessed palm and olive branches held up by members of the congregation.

After Mass, before praying the Angelus from the altar set up in front of the Basilica, the pope made special mention of “people afflicted with tuberculosis, as today is the World Day against this disease.”

“Brothers” Pope Francis, Benedict XVI meet

CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy — Brief video clips and a short briefing from the Vatican spokesman gave observers a glimpse of a historic moment filled with touching gestures — the visit today of Pope Francis to his predecessor, the emeritus Pope Benedict XVI.

Pope Francis embraces retired Pope Benedict XVI at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo. (CNS/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

Pope Francis embraces retired Pope Benedict XVI at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo. (CNS/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

Pope Francis arrived shortly after noon by helicopter in the gardens of the papal villa at Castel Gandolfo, where Pope Benedict has been staying since his Feb. 28 resignation. While the two have spoken by telephone at least twice, this was their first meeting since Pope Francis’ March 13 election.

Pope Benedict, wearing a quilted white jacket over a simple white cassock, was driven to the garden heliport to greet his successor. But Pope Benedict is moving even more slowly than he was a month ago, and Pope Francis walked down the helicopter steps reaching out to Pope Benedict.

Pope Francis prays with  Pope Benedict after arriving at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo. (CNS/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

Pope Francis prays with Pope Benedict after arriving at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo. (CNS/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said they both got in the car to go to the villa. Pope Francis sat on the right — the spot reserved for the pope — and Pope Benedict sat on the left.

As soon as they entered the villa, the two went to the chapel. Pope Francis walked in first, turning to reach out to Pope Benedict and help him to one of the pews. Father Lombardi said Pope Benedict indicated Pope Francis should take the front bench, but Pope Francis said, “We are brothers,” and the two knelt in prayer side by side.

They spent 45 minutes talking alone. Pope Francis gave Pope Benedict an icon of Our Lady of Humility, saying that when he received it, he immediately thought of Pope Benedict.

The two had lunch together at Castel Gandolfo, then went for a short walk. Pope Francis left about two and half hours after he arrived.

Pope Benedict XVI talks with Pope Francis at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo. (CNS//L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

Pope Benedict talks with Pope Francis at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo. (CNS//L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

Hundreds of people who were gathered in the main square outside the papal villa were left disappointed. They had hoped the two popes — one reigning, one emeritus — would come to the balcony together.

Father Lombardi told reporters the meeting was “the culmination” of major events in the life of the church over the past month, the prayerful and successful transition of the papacy. The meeting, he said, was “a sign of communion.”

USCCB: HHS regs continue to violate First Amendment

UPDATE (March 21): USCCB: New proposed rules on mandate still violate religious freedom

The proposed new regulations governing the contraceptive mandate and other portions of the Affordable Care Act are “an unprecedented … violation of religious liberty by the federal government,” said the general counsel of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Anthony R. Picarello, associate general secretary and general counsel, and Michael F. Moses, associate general counsel, cited a series of continuing problems with the new proposal.

The comments March 20 stem from new proposed regulations made public by the Department of Health and Human Services Feb. 1 under the health care reform law which requires most health plans to cover abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives, sterilization and related education and counseling.

Among the concerns cited by Picarello and Moses: the latest rules require coverage of items and procedures, such as contraception, that do not prevent disease and there is no exemption or accommodation for the vast majority of individual or institutional stakeholders with religious or moral objections to contraceptive coverage.

Other objections to the proposed regulations are detailed in the comments filed on behalf of the USCCB. The deadline for filing comments is April 1.

Earlier, New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan said the proposed rules showed movement but fell short of addressing the U.S. bishops’ concerns.

The USCCB issued a press release late this afternoon announcing that comments had been filed with the government.

CNS will have a full report tomorrow.

Arrivederci Roma!

Pope Francis souvenirs on sale in Rome. (CNS photo/Lauren Colegrove)

Pope Francis souvenirs on sale in Rome. (CNS photo/Lauren Colegrove)

Being in Rome the past two and a half weeks was a little bit of a time warp.

When I arrived March 4 to join the CNS Rome bureau in their conclave-election-installation coverage there was so much unknown and plenty of speculation in the air about who would be the new pope. Few had their sights on Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina.

Fast forward to March 13, a cold rainy evening in Rome. The crowd in St. Peter’s Square stood around talking, praying, shifting their weight from foot to foot. One person likened it to waiting for the ball to drop in New York’s Times Square on New Year’s Eve. The big difference was: everyone knows exactly when the ball will drop; no one had any idea when they might see smoke from the Sistine Chapel chimney.

Plenty of the Vatican smoke watchers seemed to have some degree of inside knowledge. When smoke didn’t appear by 5:30 p.m., pretty much everyone thought it would be black later that night. They made plans to come back the next day and hoped it would be white in the morning, not the evening.

Of course the “experts” ended up being wrong.

I had also assumed there wouldn’t be a definitive vote that night and had worked myself to the perimeter of the square to make for an easy exit once the predicted black smoke appeared on one of the Jumbotron television screens.

I actually had fallen prey to this false advice even before going to the square that night taking only a partially-used reporter’s notebook and one ink pen. The thing is — and I should know this from covering countless March for Life events — ink pens don’t work so well in the cold and rain.

After nearly two hours in the square, I finally asked an Italian woman, by miming how my pen didn’t work, if she had a pen I could use. In perhaps the first miracle of the night, she somehow got what I was saying and indeed found a pen for me at the bottom of her purse.

Pen in hand, I called the CNS booth in the Vatican press office to see if they wanted any of my quotes for the second-day vote story. While talking to Rome bureau chief Frank Rocca, I saw smoke on the screen, screamed in his ear that it was white and then joined the wave of people who immediately ran to get as close to the basilica as possible, and then some, with plenty of pushing and shoving when the crowd reached an impasse.

Since then, all is a blur. The pope was announced; he rode the bus back with the cardinals afterward. He met with cardinals and journalists. He celebrated Mass in a small church just inside the Vatican. He said his first Angelus. He had his inauguration Mass. He met with ecumenical leaders.

“It seems like a month since the pope was elected,” Onismo Makova, a seminarian from Zimbabwe told me prior to the inauguration Mass since we recognized each other from an interview prior to the Angelus.

Amen to that, I thought.

After the pope’s Mass yesterday, life in Rome seemed to go back to normal, almost immediately. Streets were washed clean as soon as the pilgrims cleared the square. Tour guides and souvenir shops were back in full force.

By today, most of the 5,000 plus extra journalists in town were gone and construction crews were dismantling the media platforms down the street from St. Peter’s Basilica.

This morning St. Peter’s square was getting set up for Palm Sunday, complete with trees and bushes around the square’s obelisk. Congratulatory banners and signs for Pope Francis were still hanging in the city and shops were selling Pope Francis postcards, rosaries, magnets and T-shirts.

For now, of course, it is still a honeymoon period for Pope Francis.

One person I interviewed showed cautious optimism about what the new pope would bring to the church, but, like almost everyone else, he couldn’t help but take in some of the enthusiasm about him.

“We should buckle our seat belts and enjoy the ride,” he said.

Indeed. The crowd may be leaving the Eternal City, but we’ll hang on tight for what’s ahead.

Pope’s inauguration begins with symbols, gestures

VATICAN CITY — Although attempts were made to simplify the ceremony, Pope Francis officially inaugurated his ministry as pope and bishop of Rome in a liturgy filled with biblical symbolism and signs of the universality of his mission.

But before the solemn rites began March 19, Pope Francis — known for choosing public transport over chauffeur-driven limousines — took his first spin in the popemobile, blessing the tens of thousands of people who arrived in St. Peter’s Square as early as 4 a.m. to pray with him. He waved and, at one point, gave a thumbs up to the faithful. He also kissed three babies held up to him by the chief of Vatican security, Domenico Gianni, and other officers.

But he stopped the open jeep used as a popemobile, climbing down to kiss a severely disabled man.

Before entering St. Peter’s Square, he addressed by satellite thousands of his fellow Argentines gathered in Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, where he had been archbishop before his election as pope. He thanked the people for their prayers and told them, “I have a favor to ask. I want to ask that we all walk together, caring for one another … caring for life. Care for the family, care for nature, care for children, care for the aged. Let there be no hatred, no fighting, put aside envy and don’t gossip about anyone.”

Although according to church law he officially became pope the minute he accepted his election in the Sistine Chapel March 13, he received important symbols of his office at the inauguration Mass — the Book of the Gospels, the ring of the fisherman St. Peter and the pallium, a woolen band worn around the shoulders to evoke a shepherd carrying a sheep.

With members of the College of Cardinals dressed in gold gathered before the main altar in St. Peter’s Basilica and brass players sounding a fanfare, the rites began at the tomb of St. Peter. Pope Francis venerated the mortal remains of his predecessor as head of the church and was joined there by the heads of the Eastern Catholic Churches.

Processing behind the Eastern church leaders and the cardinals, Pope Francis — wearing a simple, mostly white chasuble and his black shoes — came out into St. Peter’s Square while the choir chanted a special litany to Christ the King.

French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, who had announced Pope Francis’ election to the world six days earlier, placed the pallium, which had been worn by Pope Benedict XVI, around the new pope’s neck. The retired pope did not attend the Mass.

“The Good Shepherd charged Peter to feed his lambs and his sheep; today you succeed him as the bishop of this church to which he and the Apostle Paul were fathers in faith,” Cardinal Tauran said.

Italian Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, presented Pope Francis with the fisherman’s ring, a gold-plated silver band featuring St. Peter holding keys, a reminder that Jesus told Peter, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Giving the pope “the ring, the seal of Peter the fisherman,” Cardinal Sodano told the pope he was called, as bishop of Rome, to preside over the church with charity. He prayed the pope would have “the gentleness and strength to preserve, through your ministry, all those who believe in Christ in unity and fellowship.”

Six cardinals, representing the entire College of Cardinals, publicly pledged obedience to the pope.

While many Christians acknowledge the special role of the bishop of Rome as the one who presides over the entire Christian community in love, the way the papacy has been exercised over the centuries is one of the key factors in the ongoing division of Christians.

For the first time since the Great Schism of 1054 split the main Christian community into East and West, the Orthodox ecumenical patriarch attended the installation Mass. Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the first among equals of the Eastern Orthodox, sat in a place of honor near the papal altar.

Catholicos Karekin II of Etchmiadzin, patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church, also attended the Mass along with delegations from 12 other Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches, 10 Anglican and Protestant communities and three international Christian organizations, including the World Council of Churches.

The Chief Rabbinate of Israel, the Jewish community of Rome and several international Jewish organizations sent representatives to the ceremony, as did Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain and Hindu communities and organizations.

Also present were representatives of 132 governments, led by the presidents of Italy and Argentina, the reigning royals of six countries — including Belgium’s king and queen — and 31 heads of state. Vice President Joe Biden led the U.S. delegation while David Lloyd Johnston, governor general, led the Canadian delegation.

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